Tag Archives: alice in wonderland

Their cry is faytal to mostley everyone

I love this picture of Alice falling — surrendering to the fall. N drew it last year, or maybe the year before, and I just came upon it again. The knees of Alice’s bloomers are dobbed with white-out, as if the white paper wasn’t quite enough to convey them accurately. If you look closely, you’ll spot N’s embellishment to the story: Dinah the cat at the top of the rabbit hole, paws perched on the edge, looking into the abyss. Those rectangles behind Alice — drawn with such determination, tongue stuck out in concentration — are the cupboards and books she soars past, on her way to adventures in Wonderland.

Down, down, down. Would the fall never end?

Just one of the cool cats at Open Door Designs puppet store in Toronto

As I write this, N has just headed off for her last day of school, a bunch of lavender for her teacher stuffed in her bag, along with a puppet from the delightful puppet store nearby. (How many neighbourhoods can boast of a puppet store?) So by the end of the day, Grade 2 en francais will be fini, and summer will have truly begun. In anticipation, the park up the street has been flooded with children each day after school for the last couple of weeks. Soon we’ll be whiling away the afternoons there, and spending the evenings reading.

We’re on the fourth Harry book now, each of us transfixed as ever. N’s dad and I take turns reading, and you can practically hear the crackle of N listening hard to every detail. Once in a while she stops us to ask questions:
What does marauder mean?
What’s disarm?

And she remembers the answers, storing them away for future reference. The other day I was changing her sheets while she was at school, and I lifted the pillow and found a little notepad, a pen and a pencil. Curious, I flipped through, and discovered page after page of “Pottery.” Each sheet was devoted to one of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s classes, and contained pearls of wisdom learned there. Under the heading Care of Magical Creatures: The hipagrif will attack when it is insaulted. Never insault a hipagrif. And under Defence Against the Dark Arts: The bogart is sommething that changes forme to sommething that your scard of. And under Potions: The polly juse posion is used to descigs yourself into sommeone that you want to be. And it fades in one hour. And under Herbology: Mandrac or mangergora is used to cure those who are petrifid and their cry is faytal to mostley everyone. Her spelling, to me, is a rich combination of French, English, Old English, and N English.

Looking more closely at these notes now, I see that N has written “Name: Hermione” at the top of each page, and awarded points below each answer. I’m betting she’s playing Hermione each night, by the glow of her night-light. I love the thought that she is creating this imaginary world as an extension of the books she reads. I wonder how long it will last?

Sherlock Holmes drawn by Sidney Paget, 1891

Last night, I gave a reading at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, and a woman approached me to say she followed this blog. Her son is four, and they are still enjoying the rich world of picture books, but into this she weaves her own versions of the books he has ahead of him: a mother’s tantalizing re-tellings of everything from Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes. I admire people who can tell (not just read) stories. N’s dad does it well, but I fail miserably. It isn’t that I can’t think of the story quickly enough, because if you put a pen in my hand, something would scratch out right away. But it’s as if there’s a freeway from my brain down through my arm, and the only off-ramp is at my fingertips. So that even telling you all this now would be much harder for me than writing it down.

I guess this is common, that people are or are not good at what N used to call “stories from your mouth.” Another couple I spoke with last night — grandparents now, so with plenty of experience — said that she told stories and he read them. And either way, they were eagerly received. I confessed my creeping worry that all this reading to N has hindered her ability to read on her own. While I think it’s great to be read to, there’s something extra special about losing yourself, all alone, in a book. “Don’t worry,” they said with certainty. Which is always the answer I come to when I think about it myself.

And I can see how the books feed her on many levels — there’s the excitement of a good story, the exercise of the brain trying to puzzle out the twists and turns, the enormous leaps in vocabulary, and the unwieldy (yet also basic) questions of good and evil. What a shock, for instance, when Sirius Black — the murderous dark wizard hunting us through three quarters of Prisoner of Azkaban — turns out to be Harry’s godfather, dearest friend to his father James. Or when wise, kind Professor Lupin turns out to be a werewolf with a dangerous and violent hunger.

So — though school is out, the learning continues. Who knows what summer will bring? According to N’s pillow notes, I see there might be a way of finding out. Divination: tea leaves tell you what’s going to hapin in the futur. 20 points to Griffindor.

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Michelle Berry: “Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me”

Even though the books I write are for grown-ups (who “don’t believe in anything,” according to N, and don’t see the magic of illustrations), the books I read with N feed me and my work. Articulating those thoughts on this blog over the last while has got me wondering how other writers feel about children’s literature — what books meant to them as children, how stories stayed with them over the years, or what it’s been like for them as parents reading to their own kids. So now and again, interspersed with my own ramblings, I’ll post the words of other writers sharing their own ideas about the power of children’s literature. First up is the self-proclaimed noisy writer Michelle Berry, who writes:

It was mostly my father who read to me as a child. To me and my brother. We would sit on the couch after dinner, each of us flanking my father, leaning our heads on his shoulders, and he would read. He would shout when the character shouted, he would cry when the character cried, he would supply all necessary sound effects—hiss, boom, eergh!—he would play with the rhythm and beat of the words. Mostly, he would make it fun and fascinating—almost better than watching TV. My mom would be listening from the kitchen, washing dishes or reading the newspaper. We often heard her laugh. I would have the cat on my lap. My brother would bite his fingernails throughout and place the little half-moon nails on his lap in a pile to collect them later and throw them away.

We went through almost all of Dickens, we read The Hobbit and the first book of The Lord of The Rings. We read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and other Mark Twain books. Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland. The key was to find books that would appeal to both of us—my brother is two years older than me. There were books I didn’t understand but loved the sound of, like Paradise Lost. Or plays like Hamlet.

Then one day—I won’t even tell you how old we were—my brother and I looked at each other. We cleared our throats and said, “Dad, we’re getting a little too old to be read to.” Heartbreaking, I think, for my father. And sad for us. But we all knew we’d had a great run. We’d had that time together. We’d learned a lot without even realizing we were learning.

It wasn’t until I started to write seriously that I realized what my father had done. He had given voice to words. He had made me read and write in a way that was completely different from most people I know. I hear the words. I hear the sounds. I hear the rhythm. Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me. And this is why certain books stood out as my favourites:

Dr. Seuss. Anything he wrote. Read them aloud. You’ll see why. “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Plus, Dr. Seuss loved me and he constantly told me so: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Alice in Wonderland. Not only the quirky characters (which, if you know my writing at all, you’ll know I love) and the strange morals and lessons (“Begin at the beginning, and then go on til you come to the end: then stop.” “We call him Tortoise, because he taught us.”), but the beat behind the sentences. As the Duchess says, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

But then there were also the books that stood out because of the art. I would peer over my father’s shoulder and marvel at the beautiful or simple work—Harold and The Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, is a book I remember fondly. Harold can’t sleep and so he draws himself a world with his purple crayon. It’s quite an adventure. Of course, Maurice Sendak’s work both frightened and enchanted me: Where the Wild Things Are. I still have a series of very small brown-covered books by Sendak, Chicken Soup With Rice, and In the Night Kitchen. Always nasty little boys who learned lessons well (or didn’t, and died).

Every Christmas Eve my family would sit down and listen to a record (yes, a record!) of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read by Dylan Thomas in his rolling Welshman’s deep-booming voice: “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.” Of course I’ve burned a CD of it and now make my own children listen to it every Christmas Eve. Every year my youngest understands a little more, and laughs at parts she didn’t “get” last year. It’s wonderful to see.

So, to sum up, I liked the quirky stuff, the beauty of a book, the moral tales (learn your lessons or you’ll undoubtedly die), the sound of the words. I think my writing now reflects all of this. I read my writing out loud, always. It’s the only way I can see it. It’s the only way it comes alive.

Michelle Berry is the author of three short story collections. Her most
recent collection,
I Still Don’t Even Know You won the 2011 Mary
Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher. She has
also published four novels, the most recent of which,
This Book Will
Not Save Your Life, won the 2010 Colophon Prize. She lives in
Peterborough, Ontario.

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“Grown-ups don’t believe in anything”

This gorgeous image comes, via thegraphicsfairy.blogspot.com, from an old French dictionary.

A while back at breakfast I was recounting to my little family a dream that I’d had about Elton John–the peacock-style Elton of old, who disappears into his costumes. N knows who Elton John is from watching a DVD we have of some Muppet Show episodes, and she has often commented that Elton plays piano with his fingers too flat, since her own teacher is always reminding her to use the very tops of her fingers to strike those keys. “I guess he didn’t have a very good teacher.” Though he seems to have done all right regardless.

Anyway, my dream about Elton was that he came to me several times in his souped-up outfits, serenading me and asking to be my boyfriend. In the dream, there was no N and no N’s dad, and so I was free to accept Elton’s bejeweled hand if I so desired. But I could not get past the enormous glasses, the feathery hats, the glittering sequins and the flared pantsuits. I could not find the real Elton behind all of that, and so I said “Sorry, but no.”

And N’s response? “Mom.” A roll of the eyes. “Grown-ups don’t dream.”

Girl with fairy hovering, by N

Where she got this idea, I don’t know. But it has stuck with me. We sometimes have long talks about fairies, as she is a fan of the Rainbow Magic fairy books by someone with the dubious name Daisy Meadows. Together we have mowed through Penny the Pony Fairy and Ruby the Red Fairy and Sunny the Yellow Fairy and Crystal the Snow Fairy and Amy the Amethyst Fairy and Zoe the Skating Fairy and Samantha the Swimming Fairy. And we have even purchased–setting our sights high–Mia la fee du mardi, but the French is a little beyond us still.

As an author I sometimes wonder, how does Daisy do it?

And how much longer will she go on?

Never mind–N adores these books, and I can practically hear her wheels turning as we read about Rachel and Kirsty gasping (which they do every couple of pages), and zipping off to Fairyland, and stopping the dirty deeds of Jack Frost and the goblins, who steal the fairies’ magic. Actually I like the bad guys, bratty and pointy-nosed, always sneering and sticking out their tongues at the girls. I read their voices in a robotic but nasal way that propels me through the pages. “From this day on, Fairyland will be without colour–forever!”

Sometimes I think it’s the way children imagine the grown-up world–without colour–and they feel a little sorry for us, and a little wary of where they themselves are heading.

N sets up her own fairy houses, decorating them with tiny boxes stuffed with tulip petals for beds, and setting out drinking vessels and offerings of nuts and seeds. She used to ask, “Mom, do you believe in fairies?” But she doesn’t ask anymore, because I think she knows the answer.

It’s the same with ghosts. A while back she and her friend A wrote letters to ghosts for an entire afternoon.

“Dear Grandpa Peter. Can you watch out for me your grandoter that you never met? And can you also watch out for my friend as well?”

“Dear Stella. I live in your olde house that you youst to live in. PS Your probebly verry nice.”

“Dear Terry. I miss you terobly. I will trye to wach ouet for your gardin wehn ever I go bye it.”

Each note was slid beneath the basement door, and they stood listening to it whoosh down the stairs.

Recently N was at another friend’s place, J, and J told her how one night when she’d been lying awake in the darkness, a green hand appeared before her face, just hovering there. It was about the same size as her own hand, and it had the criss-cross pattern of ordinary skin. Alarmed, J screamed aloud until her father came rushing into the room. She told him what she’d seen–how she’d been wide awake and absolutely not dreaming–and he tried to calm her, as a parent would, and told her she was imagining things.

“But I know I saw it,” the girl confided to N. “It’s just that grown-ups don’t believe in anything.”

"When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child's laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy's merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at. Uncle Henry never laughed." Illustration by W.W. Denslow.

I suppose our dismaying lack of belief is what keeps us out of so many children’s stories. In the fairy books N devours, Rachel and Kirsty’s parents sometimes drift blandly through the background, offering bus money or a sandwich, but they are never privy to the girls’ mysteries and great adventures. Pippi Longstocking lives parentless in Villa Villekulla with her monkey and her horse. “But who tells you when to go to bed at night?” Annika asks her. And Pippi answers “I do. The first time I say it, I say in a friendly sort of way, and if I don’t listen I say it again more sharply, and if I still don’t listen, then there’s a thrashing to be had, believe me!” Alice, swallowed up by her dream, slips down through the rabbit hole alone, into Wonderland, just as Dorothy Gale drifts up and up, leaving Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in her dust. The sun and wind had “taken the sparkle” from Aunt Em’s eyes, and Uncle Henry “did not know what joy was.” Think, too, of The Secret Garden,  a place reserved for the children of the story until they can make the adults understand its wonderful power.

And from our grown-up perspective, we watch our children taking all this in, remembering doing so ourselves, and how we looked at our own parents with wonder for all the things they did not see.

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